By Caroline Klibanoff, Made By Us
In the last few weeks, as the world has been turned upside down, history institutions – like so many others – have had to reorganize, respond, rework. This circumstance has accelerated pressure on trends we faced already. Many have handled the shift remarkably well, at least from the outside.
On the inside, I know it hasn’t been easy, to say the least. Organizations struggle to navigate these choppy waters and care for their invaluable staff and volunteers, and even where we’re seeing some positives—new life for digital content! Learning from other institutions!—it has come at a great cost. Perhaps you feel alone in making big decisions. Perhaps you feel your site was barely scraping by before, and now the goalposts have been moved again. Perhaps you want to try some bold new ideas, but it feels like uncharted territory.
Made By Us was first hatched when some of the country’s leading history institutions realized that a) they wanted to better reach and engage young people and b) they couldn’t do it alone. This group of nine partners, including the National Museum of American History, the New York Historical Society, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the Atlanta History Center, the Senator John Heinz History Center, the National Archives, HistoryMiami, Missouri Historical Society and the Japanese American National Museum, decided to harness the superpower that museums too rarely use: collaboration.
That collaborative spirit guides our work in serving younger audiences, but it also aids us in this new circumstance. The challenges we face now are unique and devastating, but the way to tackle them is the same: let us band together, share what we have and what we know, and grow our capacity to thrive among new-ness. That’s the engine that powers Made By Us, and we’d like to invite you to join us for the ride.
Made By Us has just made our public debut, and we have a clear mission: to connect millennials and Gen-Z with history as a tool for civic engagement and for everyday life, in ways that are relevant, accessible, and timely. We take an audience-first approach: instead of telling young people what they “need to know” about the past, we’re listening to them to discover what they need to know, for life, and meeting them where they are. (I say “they,” but I am both a public historian, the Program Manager for Made By Us and a prototypical millennial, so consider me a kind of translator-guide between “we” and “they.”)
We have our eyes on the nation’s 250th anniversary and will use the next several years to experiment, test, iterate, and evolve so that by 2026, we are a well-oiled machine when it comes to sharing a broad, inclusive history with younger generations, and responding to evolving needs and platforms. We develop easy-to-use, flexible initiatives that serve the needs of young people today, and that organizations of all sizes and shapes can plug into—whether you have two staff members or two hundred.
We designed the first big Made By Us initiative to put history organizations at the center of a national conversation about the next 250 years of the United States. That’s still coming (and soon!), but in light of COVID-19, we’ve pivoted our strategy to respond to current needs. We quickly created a #TrashOrTreasure Challenge related to COVID-19, asking: what would YOU save so that people tomorrow understand today? We collected responses from history partners and created a map of over 100 story-collecting initiatives nationwide.
It’s a heavy lift for individual sites to spin up compelling, participatory projects that excel at engaging millennials and Generation Z. It’s challenging for most organizations just to maintain a digital presence, let alone try the latest platforms or technology, and the payoff is uncertain and uneven. But you aren’t in it alone. By collaborating across organizations—sharing what we’re learning, what we know and “how we did it”—we create a sum that is larger than its parts.
Of course, historic sites have much to offer individually. We need someone to share the stories of community activists in Massachusetts, someone to collect immigration artifacts in Nebraska, and someone to give historical perspective on economic booms and busts in California. We need historic house museums and local historical societies and big history museums. Yet at the same time, we need a way to connect those sites, to pull threads from each into one interwoven American story, and amplify it to millennials and zoomers through relevant pop culture references and channels. This is especially true now, when people may not be able to visit in person, but still have questions about country, identity, and civic participation that we can help explore.
That’s where Made By Us comes in. You bring the history; we do the research, co-create the tools, and facilitate connection; and together, we can lighten the load, collectively raising the profile of history organizations among young people.
If you’re ready to heed the call of our Founding Partners and more than 40+ Anchor Partners, get in touch with me at KlibanoffC@si.edu or sign up for a webinar.
How is your institution coping with COVID-19? Share your ideas and experiments with the field on our blog. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a blog post.